Honor We Choose: Winter Part III
I wanted to share a short story I wrote when I was still in college. I think it's one of the best short stories I've written even though it can be very cliche and tell-y rather than show-y. Nevertheless, I'm proud of it as one of my earliest works, and it's always interesting to revisit where you've been in the past. Here's the final part. Enjoy.
Winter had come. The snow fell to the ground, purifying everything with its forgiving white blanket. The quietness of the land gave an illusion of peace and security. The bare tree looked like skeletons, stripped of all life. The cold, bitter winds blew in every direction, whipping Akira's face. Although all the predators had gone into hibernation, there was still one predator that concerned him.
The shogun was surrounded by five retainers with Akira by the shogun's side. All were on horseback, slowly riding on the path. The snow this winter had been heavy, and huge walls of packed snow ten foot tall ran parallel on each side of the path. From his black horse, Shogun Hibiki saw the concern in Akira's eyes, "Something on your mind, Ayukawa?"
"My lord, he’s out there. Waiting for the best opportunity to strike."
The shogun laughed, "I assume you are referring to Morimoto."
"My lord, Morimoto is not a threat that should be ignored. He is still extremely dangerous. In fact, I think this trip to Wana is a bad idea. We are wide open to any surprise attacks, and we do not have enough retainers to defend a serious attack."
Shogun Hibiki waved his hand, brushing off Akira's words, "If that traitor Morimoto was so bent on killing me, I would already be with my ancestors. I have not heeded his threats and am still alive to talk about it. It has already been three months. For all we know, Morimoto is good as dead."
"My lord, I think you are unwise in your conclusion....."
"Enough!" the shogun interrupted, "I have heard enough of your nagging."
"Yes, my lord."
"I want you and the others to go on ahead to Wana and prepare the villagers for my arrival. I will be greeted with the respect and fear I deserve."
"Ayukawa, obey your shogun! I will keep Tsukinai with me for protection. His swordsmanship will be sufficient to defend me from any threats. Understood."
"Yes, my lord." Akira motioned to the other riders to go to Wana. The three other retainers galloped off into the distance. Akira looked at the shogun, "Please do not take my insolence the wrong way, my lord. I am only concerned for your safety. Please allow me to stay by your side."
The shogun nodded his head, "Very well, Ayukawa. Do note that if you were anyone else besides my head retainer, I would have run you through by now."
"Yes, my lord." The trio trodded down the path, heading towards Wana. Suddenly, Akira heard the twang of a string. Mere seconds later, an arrow plunged into his horse’s leg, causing the horse to throw Akira before he could react. He landed on the ground, dazed.
Tsukinai, reacting to the arrow, drew his katana. The shogun mirrored his action. A masked figure dressed in white slid down the snow embankment and landed on the path.
"Who dares threaten the shogun?" demanded Tsukinai. The white-clad figure pulled off his mask and revealed his face.
"Morimoto," the shogun said emotionlessly.
"You have not heeded my words, Hibiki. I pray that you have had sufficient time to prepare for eternal damnation." Satoru drew his katana as Tsukinai galloped towards him. As Tsukinai drew closer, Satoru jumped at a tree and rebounded off it at the charging enemy. As their katanas clashed, Satoru quickly spun and decapitated Tsukinai before he had a chance to parry the blow. His headless body slumped to the ground, and a pool of blood contaminated the pure snow with its crimson hue.
The shogun just stared at Satoru. "I am impressed, you disabled both of my retainers effortlessly. I have heard reports of a bandit who has stolen from my treasury. I can now only assume that this ronin standing before me is that thief."
"You are correct. All that money has been given back to their rightful owners--the villagers. Though you rule over this land, you do not own it. You have not protected the people the same way as your ancestors. I tell you the truth; the souls of all the men, women, and children you have put to death cry out for your blood to be spilt. They will be avenged."
The shogun's eyes bore into the eyes of Satoru, "The people are nothing but my servants. The ancestors were fools for not using their resources to rule over the land. Your ideal of a shogun is nothing but a myth told to amuse little children. Tell me, Morimoto. Do you think you can defeat me? There is a reason why I became shogun. No one can defeat me. I have destroyed all those foolish enough to oppose me. Surely you have known that in the short time you served as my head retainer. Let us also not forget your hand in the murder of these ‘innocent’ people that you are avenging."
Satoru just shook his head, "You are wrong. Though I have done the villagers wrong, I have trying to make up for those deaths by become their champion. The villagers have forgiven me and embraced me."
The shogun said haughtily, "Is that so? Come, ‘champion of the people,’ I will personally hang your bloody head on top of my palace to show everyone how futile it is to oppose me."
Sprawled on the ground, Akira tried to recover from his fall and looked in the shogun's direction. Seeing that Satoru and Shogun Hibiki were charging at each other, he jumped to his feet and rushed to aid his shogun. He ran erratically, still dazed.
Satoru leapt at the shogun, parried his blow, and kicked his horse, breaking its leg. As the horse fell in the snow, the shogun jumped off the horse and landed opposite Satoru. A dizzy Akira fell to the ground but scrambled to his feet. "My lord!"
The shogun swung his katana in an arch, intending to separate Satoru’s arm from his body. Satoru deftly blocked the blow and reached behind his back. Shogun Hibiki lunged to impale Satoru, but he easily dodged the blow and swung his arm from behind his back and plunged a dagger into the shogun's throat--Karumi's dagger. Shogun Hibiki fell to the ground, gasping for air.
Satoru stood over him, "Indeed your swordsmanship was formidable, but the gods favor those who protect the weak."
Seeing his shogun felled, Akira cleared his head in determination and charged at Satoru, shouting at the top of his lungs. Satoru instinctively raised his katana as Akira's blade swooped down, threatening to cut him in half. Quickly, Satoru’s dagger was at Akira’s throat. He looked into Akira’s eyes that were filled with hate and fear.
Satoru tightened his trembling grip on the dagger. "Farewell, old friend." However, as his grip tightened, he felt the scar press against the hilt of the dagger. Satoru paused for a second, "No, I cannot do this, Ayukawa-kun." He quickly pushed Akira to the ground and jumped on Tsukinai’s horse, galloping away. Akira gasped for air. His soul was a wrist flick away from joining his ancestors. Noticing that the shogun was no longer struggling, he chased after Satoru. He chased to avenge his dead master.
Satoru slowed down to wipe the blood from his katana and dagger on the horse’s saddle. His mission of vengeance was complete. He sheathed his weapons and urged the horse to go faster. Leading his pursuer by a good 100 yards, Satoru had almost reached his escape route. "This was too easy, Ayukawa-kun. I expected more of a challenge from you." Reaching a wooden bridge suspended by ropes, Satoru then noticed forty riders coming towards him. Satoru cursed. He hadn't expected reinforcement to be right behind the shogun. He quickly cut the ropes holding up the bridge, stranding the riders on the other side. But it was inevitable--he had to face Akira. Satoru drew his katana, waiting for Akira's approach. Akira came and stopped twenty feet from him.
Satoru said to him, "Hibiki was an unjust ruler who abused the people. Why do you not understand? He deserved to die."
Akira dismounted his horse, "You are correct. Shogun Hibiki was not as virtuous as he seemed, but he was my master. The lord's words are the law, and I must avenge his death." Akira drew his katana.
No longer did two men stand there, ten paces from each other. Unlike the other times they sparred, this time it would be all out. No quarter would be given, and both would swing at each other hard--as hard as two young boys wielding sticks and giving each other dark, purple bruises."
As they circled each other, Akira inquired, "Why did you kill Tsukinai? Was not Shogun Habiki's blood enough?"
"Tsukinai accompanied me on some of the tasks I completed for Hibiki. He enjoyed killing those people, raping villagers, and other horrid things. It was clear he was not only acting under the orders of the ‘lord protectorate, Hibiki.’ I had no other choice. Please tell me. Why do you avenge this monster, Ayukawa-kun?" asked Satoru.
"No matter what the shogun asks, I am vowed to serve him faithfully."
"There will come a day when the shogun you serve will push you beyond your limits. I have heard of how you have shed innocent blood in the name of the shogun. Do the cries of those people echo in your head? Do they prick your conscience?"
Akira bellowed, "The shogun's commands are the law."
Satoru solemnly said, "Has your loyalty to some idealized abstract of some perfect shogun drowned out your conscience? Do you not care that because of you, fathers have lost their sons, young girls have been cast out of their villages for having illegitimate children, and a son have to watch his elderly father die of hunger because the shogun needs a new silk robe for some pointless, unimportant occasion? What has gotten into you, friend? Perhaps someday you will understand."
They pounced fiercely at each other like two lions. Satoru swung his katana at Akira who blocked the blow and tried to kick Satoru. Satoru shrugged the kick away with his free hand and leapt back. Akira slashed at Satoru's head, but Satoru simply ducked and foot sweeped him. Akira fell hard to the ground but managed to roll out of striking distance. Charging again, Akira took a wide swing at Satoru to sever his torso from his legs. He simply jumped straight up in the air, and as Akira's blade missed badly, Satoru planted his feet in Akira’s face.
Akira fell back, blinded by pain and snow. When he recovered, he saw Satoru looking at him, relaxed and ready for another attack. By this time, Akira was breathing hard. With the remaining energy left in him, Akira yelled as he charged at Satoru for one last time. The blow arched down at Satoru who barely blocked it with his katana. Satoru whipped out Karumi's knife and once again, pressed it up to Akira’s throat. Akira closed his eyes, prepared to meet his ancestors.
The knife pressed against his throat as a trickle of blood leaked down his neck. The scar again. Satoru hesitated. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain in his abdomen. Akira had run him through with his katana.
Akira said, "Your mistake, Morimoto." Satoru dropped the dagger and katana in pain. He looked into Akira's cold eyes filled with hate. Putting both of his hands over Akira's hand and katana, he forced the katana across his abdomen and pulled it upward. Clenching his teeth, Satoru collapsed on the ground as Akira knelt by his side. Akira pulled his katana out of Satoru and dropped it on the ground. Satoru's trembling hand grabbed Akira's hand; two slash scars touching each other. Satoru reached into his pouch with his other hand.
Many different emotions arose in Akira. One part of him felt relieved for avenging the Shogun's death, but the other part betrayed his loyalty to the Shogun Hibiki. The scar on his palm reminded him of an oath he made as a child to his best friend. His one true friend. And he had betrayed him. What had he done? No, his loyalty to the shogun must preside over any other. That's what he was told. The shogun's command are law.
In a soft voice, Satoru whispered slowly, "Next time I meet you, Karumi and I.....will welcome you."
A tear dropped to Satoru’s cheek. "Farewell, sonkei tomodachi," Akira said as Satoru’s grip relaxed, "Farewell......Morimoto-kun." Akira looked at what Satoru had retrieved from his pouch. It was a gold rod.
Satoru's body along with the gold rod and his katana as his mourning partners were cast out to sea in a small boat on fire. Clutching Karumi's dagger, Akira watched as the boat aimlessly drifted out to sea and slowly sank. He didn't know what to think. What could he do? There was only one thing he could do--the thing that he was taught all his life. Although Satoru's death was tragic, life went on. Is not the ocean greater than anything else? The waves of the endless sea could not be stopped. This is what he would do.
"My lord, what is your request?" Akira knelt before the new shogun, Hibiki Sahiro. A week had passed since Satoru’s death.
"Ayukawa, are you loyal to your shogun?"
"Yes, my lord. What is your bidding?"
Sahiro chuckled, "I want you to bring your wife to my bedchambers tomorrow night."
Akira closed his eyes and clenched his fist, "I understand, my lord." As he left the throne, the deep laughter of the shogun rang in his ears. Closing the sliding door behind him, he heard a strange sound. At first it sounded like a baby's cry, but the noise slowly increased in volume until it became unbearable. He sunk to his knees, hearing hundreds of voices wailing. The cries tore into his soul, leaving him a sobbing mass on the ground.
The next morning, the bodies of Akira and his wife were found embracing each other. Karumi's dagger and Akira's katana were stained with their blood.